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THE RIDER (Galactic Football League Novellas Book 4)

Scott Sigler


  By Scott Sigler & Paul E Cooley

  A GFL Novella

  The Rider, a Galactic Football League novella

  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.

  All rights reserved

  Copyright © 2016 by Empty Set Entertainment, LLC

  ISBN: 978-1-939366-51-1

  Cover design by Scott E. Pond at Scott E. Pond Designs

  Cover figure design Ray Dillon

  Ebook design by Chris Casey

  Published in the United States of America By Empty Set Entertainment

  Also by Scott Sigler


  Infected (Infected Trilogy Book I)

  Contagious (Infected Trilogy Book II)



  Pandemic (Infected Trilogy Book III)


  The Generations Trilogy:




  The Galactic Football League Series (YA):

  The Rookie

  The Starter

  The All-Pro

  The MVP

  The Champion

  The Galactic Football League novellas (YA):

  The Reporter

  The Detective

  Title Fight

  The Color Series short story collections:

  Blood is Red

  Bones are White

  Fire is Orange

  Where THE RIDER falls in the Siglerverse timeline:

  This novel takes place in the month of August, 2683. It begins at the same time as Chapter 2 of THE ALL-PRO, which is Book III in the GFL series.


  Week 10

  The Interview

  Week 11

  Week 12

  Match Week 10

  Reef Stompers at Roughland Ridgebacks

  x = Qualified for Dinolition championship tournament.

  The fur-covered Nightmare Beast came straight at him: four massive legs supporting a seven-tonne body mostly covered in battered blue composite armor decorated with scratched and gouged advertising logos. Its rider, a tiny Quyth leader dressed in matching blue armor and carrying a long lance, was screaming at the creature. The beast’s hooked, armor-covered pedipalps were almost as big as the legs. Those pedipalps reached forward, twitched, ready to grab prey and drag it to the vertical maw of jagged, black teeth.

  Beneath his black and crimson helmet, Poughkeepsie Pete smiled. Most people said Nightmare Beasts looked kind of like spiders or crabs. To Pete, the thing looked like a giant tick.

  Ticks ... nasty somethings born to be squished.

  This was the moment the stadium crowd had waited for, that he had waited for — one heavyweight squaring off against another in a battle that might leave one of them dead. That might prove true, but if so, it wouldn’t be Pete’s mount left broken and bleeding on Smithwicks Arena’s packed dirt.

  Kill one of mine, will you? Let’s see how you bleed.

  “Bess, rush.”

  Pete’s thighs pressed in against the leather saddle. He felt the power generated by the 6,500 kilos of muscle and bone beneath him. Ol’ Bess quickened her pace. The T-Rex — the only one of her kind in the sport of Dinolition — leaned into her sprint and roared. Pete’s fingers tightened on the war hammer in his left hand.

  The nightmare beast closed in for a head-on collision, its single eye looking out through the thick bars of a protective visor. Pete unhooked his armored left boot from the saddle’s stirrup.

  In that moment before contact, Pete knew the crowd ate up the spectacle: an alien creature bedecked in sparkling blue armor collision-coursing toward a thirteen-meter-long beast covered in glistening red composite plate.

  Scant meters before the crushing impact, Bess effortlessly shifted right so the two monsters would pass side by side. The little Quyth Leader reacted well, swinging his lance to drive the point into Pete’s red-armored chest.

  Pete swung his left foot back and over Bess’s body, coming out of the saddle, letting the right stirrup carry all of his weight — the lance tip hissed through empty air where Pete had just been. Right hand on the saddle horn, Pete wrist-whipped his war hammer in a short circle, bringing it down on his opponent’s lance, snapping the long weapon in two a good meter from the tip.

  Pete’s strike against the lance was more distraction than disarmament, keeping the Leader from recognizing Bess’s simultaneous move. The T-Rex drove her wide, armored head down hard against the Nightmare Beast’s rear left leg — plates of blue armor bent and spun free to expose the black and green carapace beneath; black liquid sprayed out in a cloud as the leg snapped.

  Screeching with pain, the Nightmare Beast turned sharply, spinning in place like a disc anchored by three still-functioning legs. The creature thrust its blocky head forward and bit at Bess’s neck. Jaws that opened side-to-side rather than up-and-down snapped together. Most of the jagged, black teeth scratched harmlessly against Bess’s sparkling red armor — doing little more than scraping a gouge in the logos for Junkie Gin and Madek’s Hover-Repair — but two teeth drove through a seam in that armor and dug into the soft flesh beneath.

  Crimson blood flew. Bess reared back, the six-tonne T-Rex roaring in pain. Pete timed the momentum of her lurch, right hand on saddle horn and right boot locked in the stirrup. The one-meter tall, armor-clad man waited until Bess regained control before he kicked his left leg back over the saddle and clicked it home.

  “Bess, bite!”

  Pete’s mount lunged down with all the power in her massive frame, but this time instead of using her head as a battering ram, she opened wide her jagged maw and clamped her jaws tight on the beast’s already damaged leg. At the same time, Pete — his boots locked in the armored stirrups — stood tall in the saddle and put all his weight into a swing at the Nightmare Beast’s head.

  The spidery thing shivered at the shock of two simultaneous wounds: twenty-centimeter teeth crunching through the Beast’s armor, exoskeleton, and into the flesh beyond, and Pete’s war hammer smashing against the creature’s left pedipalp. The alien monster screeched in a high-pitched wail and bucked backwards.

  Jaws dripping with blood, Bess pressed in with a roar so loud it made Pete wince. She opened wide and bit again, this time into the Beast’s flank, her teeth armor-piercing daggers that punched through blue plate.

  Blood sprayed from the wound, sheeting the Ford Punch-Drives logo painted on Bess’s red helmet, even splashing across Pete’s visor, helmet and chest. The spectators would love that, he knew, seeing their favorite rider drenched in the hot blood of his enemy.

  The Beast stumbled backwards on unsteady legs, trying to escape the T-Rex’s savage attack. Pete saw that the Quyth Leader rider had slid to the side and was fighting to stay in his saddle, middle and pedipalp arms grabbing at stirrups, pommel, the saddle itself, the Beast’s armor: anything to keep balance.

  Pete waved the war hammer in a circle above his head, playing to the deafening crowd.

  “Bess, butt!”

  The big, beautiful T-Rex swung her armored head, smashing it into the Nightmare Beast’s rider. The Leader sailed from his saddle. His armor instantly contracted, compacting the rider into a tight, protective, armored ball that crashed into the rock-hard dirt, a pretty bit of blue sculpture thrown to the ground like a discarded m

  Pete looked to the Stomper’s end of the pitch some twenty meters away. No enemy riders between him and the Stomper’s dugout, between him and the blue and steel-grey flag that hung above it, swaying slightly in the afternoon breeze. The rest of the Stompers riders must be attacking the Ridgeback’s flag.

  “Bess, sprint!”

  Pete leaned forward in the saddle at the exact moment Bess lurched toward the enemy flag. One powerful thrust, then another, speed building, smooth strides clearing three meters, then four, then almost five as she hit top speed.

  They closed in on the Stomper’s flag. Pete waited to hear the trumpets announcing his own flag had been taken and the game was over, anxiety building that he was so close to victory and might have it snatched away at the last second.

  That sound did not come.

  Bess slowed, the jarring deceleration punishing Pete as it always did. She skidded the last five meters — Bess loved to skid — and Pete stood in the saddle. He heard the crowd roaring. Bess raised higher. Pete grabbed the Stompers flag pole and yanked it free of the stadium wall.

  He whipped the flag left and right, the fabric rat-tat-tatting against the air.

  Trumpets blared through the stadium’s speakerfilm, bahhh-bah-bah-bah-bomp — the sound that marked victor or defeat — followed by the announcer’s voice echoing over the joyous screams of the Ridgeback faithful.

  “Game over! Roughland Ridgebacks win round three, Capture the Flag. The Ridgebacks win the match, two games to one!”

  Bess craned her armored, blood-splattered head to the left, peered back at Pete with one large, green eye. He saw the long gouge in her helmet that crossed over the open eye hole — had that strike dug any deeper, his beloved mount might have lost that eye forever.

  Pete nodded to her. He smiled wide, reached an armored glove out to lightly pat her armored nose.

  “Good girl, Bessie. Now give these rubes something to write home about.”

  The T-Rex stood fully upright and lifted her head to the sky. Her victory roar rattled Pete’s teeth. Before the sound died away, the 30,000-sentient crowd’s own call joined hers, filled the stadium with the rabid glee of the bloodthirsty bunch who had paid good money for this spectacle.

  A decent crowd, Pete noted, but not a sellout. A little over three-quarters full: Not good enough.

  What more of a show can we give them? We’ve got to make it better.

  Pete nudged Bess’s side. The T-Rex head-dipped into a theatrical bow, relatively small arms tucked up tight against her massive chest. Pete unhooked his boots from the stirrups, then hopped up to stand on the saddle. Bess did a slow, shuffling circle. The crowd roared louder.

  Not for the first time, the words of team owner Salton the Grimy words echoed in Pete’s mind: Sentients don’t just want a fight ... they want pageantry.

  Pageantry. So comical. Animals engineered for bloodsport, riders trained to fight and prepared to die, all for the sake of entertaining those who wouldn’t know danger if it tore open the roof of their safe little houses, reached in and bit them in half.

  Still, this was Pete’s job — he loved it so, no matter how much the principles of it offended him — and he would do it well. If the crowd wanted to see him primp and posture like an egomaniacal actor desperate for recognition, then that’s what they would get.

  When Bess finished the clumsy circle, Pete sat back in the saddle. Bess leaned into her normal, mostly horizontal posture — head out front, heavy tail parallel to the ground — and stomped toward the gated dugout at the far end of the oval arena floor. They passed by two limping, blue-armored Spider Bears going the other way, ridden by equally beat-up and bedraggled armored Quyth Leaders — the two Stompers mounts and riders that had been trying to take the Ridgebacks’ flag even as the Nightmare Beast had tried to defend their own.

  A flag hung from the top of the dugout. Red marked with the black logo of the Roughland Ridgebacks: a shield with a dino-toothed bite out of it. Pete and Bess’s teammates — riders and mounts both — waited there.

  Critter Clark, Pete’s good friend and the eldest rider on the team, stood next to his mount, Missy. The gallimimus’s red and black, logo-covered armor was dented on her flank, exposing the dark-yellow feathers beneath. A trickle of blood oozed from beneath the plates that covered the left thigh of her long, powerful, ostrich-like legs, although Missy seemed to be in no discomfort. A jagged crack lined Clark’s torso armor from left collarbone to his sternum, splitting the Hilldigger Ground Trucks logo there, but — like his mount — he seemed unharmed. Clark was a little taller than Pete, which meant Clark didn’t quite reach the top of Missy’s 120-centimeter-high hip. Clark gently patted his mount’s long neck — even though she couldn’t feel his touch through her armor, Missy cooed at the attention.

  The team’s only beishanlong grandis, Dusty, lay on the dirt floor next to Tony Koester, her white-haired, white-skinned rider. Dusty’s neck armor was a splintered mess. When healthy, Dusty’s powerful legs could accelerate the 542-kilo dino to a shocking 80 kilometers an hour, turning her into a red-armored, black-skinned blur that caused no end of match-up trouble for opposing teams. Trouble was, Dusty wasn’t that good at reacting to attacks: she rarely came out of a match without a wound, and had spent half the season on the injured reserve. Tony knelt beside her, his gloves and helmet off, petting her scratched and wounded head.

  Critter Clark and Tony, good riders, good teammates. And then, there was Ian.

  When Pete saw Ian standing with his back against the wall, he wanted to charge the kid. Ian’s mount, Tumult, the Ridgeback’s best speedster, had been trucked off the pitch, because a ground truck with a crane was the only way to move a dead mount.

  Pete pulled Bess up to the dugout area and flipped off of her back. He somersaulted and landed in a crouch. The crowd bellowed once more.

  The announcer’s voice echoed through the stadium: “After three games, with a score of two to one, the Roughland Ridgebacks win!”

  That was the cue for final ceremonies. Usually, the wrap-up was a civilized affair, the knightly riders congratulating each other on skill and bravery as the crowd clapped in polite approval — but this time, Pete had other plans.

  “Let’s go, boys,” he said.

  Pete started walking toward the center of the pitch. Ian, Clark, and Tony walked with him.

  From the other side of the long pitch, three Quyth Leader riders from the opposing team walked out to meet them. Pete knew the Ridgebacks should have skunked the Reef Stompers three-nil, but Ian’s dumb-ass showboating had cost Roughland both a mount and a game.

  Pete pulled off his helmet, letting his long, red hair spill down his back. He cradled the helmet under his right arm. He held his war hammer in his left hand, the blood-splattered end balanced on his shoulder.

  The Stompers team captain, Sabat the Nifty, was still inside Bess’s stomach where he would stay until she pooped him out — in the first round, Bess had snatched him right off his mount and swallowed him in one gulp. It would be several more hours before he emerged with her stool, safely turtled up (hopefully, anyway) in his life-supporting armor.

  With Sabat indisposed, his second-in-command, Yopat the Crazed, would do the honors. Yopat’s blue armor had looked a lot better at the start of the match than at the end, and the orange-furred sentient walked with a bit of a limp.

  Adult Quyth Leaders were all about Pete’s height, yet much thinner than the stocky dwarf. Leaders had two sets of arms. The first set, similar in thickness to Human arms, was set low, just above the hips of their back-folded legs. Those arms, and the legs as well, ended in three-pincered claws. A Leader could walk on all fours but never did — only the lower castes touched their middle hands to the ground.

  The second set of Yopat’s orange-furred arms technically weren’t “arms” at all, but rather “pedipalps,” limbs that Quyth ancestral species had used to hold prey while the vertical mouth chewed away. Millions of years ago, the pedipalps had e
volved into slim, dexterous appendages ending in three thin fingers capable of fine work.

  The pedipalps extended from the sides of the vertical mouth, which sat just below the single, softball-sized eye. Long black antennae, in three rows of two down the middle of Yopat’s head, stuck out through the sweaty, helmet-haired fur, arced gracefully down the back of the Leader’s head.

  “Yopat, I’ve got a bone to pick with you,” Pete said. “You tried to blind my mount — twice.”

  The Leader’s eye swirled with black and flecks of green. Quyth eyes were normally clear, showing the multiple vision discs behind the cornea, but that cornea showed various colors based on the sentient’s emotional state. Pete knew black meant anger — Quyth Leaders always seemed to be angry about something — but he didn’t know what the green flecks meant.

  “Yes,” Yopat said. “It seemed strategically appropriate.”

  Pete’s fingers flexed on the handle of his war hammer. “You’ll hear from Guestford about that.”

  “I am unconcerned about your desire to ... what is the word your people use? Oh, yes, your desire to tattle on me.”

  Pete fought the urge to smash his war hammer into Yopat’s head.

  “You’re actually kind of lucky,” Pete said. “This win means we jumped over you for fourth place. We’ll be fighting for the championship at season’s end while you’ll go home. You’ll have to wait until next year before I get my payback.”

  “It is too early for your flightless bird reproduction math,” Yopat said. “Two matches remain in the season. You have the Resurrected next week, and they will crush you. Meanwhile, we will win both of our remaining encounters and finish one match ahead of you in the standings.”

  Clark tilted his head at Pete.

  “Flightless bird reproduction math?”

  “He means we’re counting our chickens before they’re hatched.”

  “Ah, those are the correct words,” Yopat said. “We will qualify for the tournament, while you will stay home and eat disappointment.”